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Paul Singer

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Lessons Learned as an Educator

Posted: 11/11/2013 12:34 pm

For nearly 35 years I have had the honor of serving as head of school at two private schools, one in Los Angeles, the other in Honolulu. My time as an educator has provided me with experiences and insights that I hadn't anticipated at the beginning of my career. As I look back at my memories -- most fond and inspiring, others sad and some downright tragic -- I remain grateful for all the experiences, as each and every one inevitably lead to valuable lessons learned.

My first year as a head of school began just prior to my 27th birthday. I was hired to run a Los Angeles area progressive, private school with a star-studded parent body. Though I had a diverse and valuable experience earlier, I began my first year as school head incredibly naive. In hindsight, at 27, I was clearly too young to become a head of school. But during my 29-year tenure there, I learned to understand and appreciate just how much heart, soul, energy, and sacrifice teachers give every day. Over time, I began to comprehend and realize how much love parents felt for their children.

One of my greatest sources of pride as an administrator came from helping to create and maintain one of Los Angeles' most socio-economic and racially diverse, LGBT-friendly campuses among the many private and independent schools in the area. As our state senator noted, we were a "model of diversity." In addition to the children of Hollywood celebrities, 30% of our student population was represented by children living in foster care or in families with incomes below the poverty level.

Lesson #1: Wealth and fame do not automatically translate to happiness; poverty does not automatically translate to misery.

Looking back, there were at least half a dozen early deaths (young people that did not survive their 20s) resulting from drug over doses or suicides. Without exception, each of these tragedies was to a young person with affluent or famous parents. By most standards, they had everything: money, material possessions, privilege, opportunities to travel, and a solid private school education. Unfortunately, all of this was not enough to provide them with what they needed. On the other hand, I've seen young people from very meager means thrive and become successful with nothing more than their very basic needs being met. The difference is they felt unconditionally supported, had a strong sense of self, and were able to celebrate what they had, rather than obsess over what was missing.

Lesson #2: Happiness comes from having a strong sense of self (not to be mistaken with an overinflated sense of importance or ego).

A strong sense of self comes from experiencing success with interesting life challenges. It also requires an ability to be content with what is and not always wishing for something else. Happy people have a distinct ability to live in the moment, without agonizing about the past or worrying about the future. They have a gift for finding contentment in the most mundane aspects to their day-to-day existence.

A great example of everyday heroes finding contentment in what is can be found at a unique and distinctive school in Honolulu serving students with learning differences. Five years ago, I became head of this school, guiding bright, creative, outside-the-box thinkers to achieve their fullest potential in a student-centered and accepting atmosphere, with an individualized, integrated learning environment that instills confidence and resilience. I've been able to use my own experience as a dyslexic with ADHD to better understand these exceptional children who happen to learn differently. One of the keys to our students' success is that we allow them to focus on their strengths and interests.

Lesson #3: We get kids excited about learning by allowing them ample opportunities to learn what they truly want to learn.

A few years ago I heard Bill Gates speak at an education conference. Following his remarks, an audience member stood and asked Gates to describe what his high school teachers did that contributed to his success. He answered, "They stayed out of my way." Recognizing young Mr. Gates' enormous potential, his teachers allowed him to pursue subject matter that interested him. We all know the end result. The approach with Gates is good for all students. When children want to know something, they instinctively find a way to satisfy their own curiosity and learn. The great educational philosopher John Dewey believed that the school curriculum should grow out of the needs and interests of the learner. Gates' teachers had that figured out.

Lesson #4: Unconditional support, guidance, and acceptance from a significant adult are the keys to nurturing confidence, resilience, and ultimately success.

In my own life, and through all my years as an educator, one of the most important and powerful lessons I've learned is the immeasurable value of acceptance and unconditional support in a young person's life from a significant adult. This is a universal truth cutting across cultural differences, socio-economic classes, learning differences, and all challenges. One of the greatest determining factors of a child's success is if that child has an adult who believes in him or her. A parent, teacher, coach, or any other caring adult can make all the difference in a child's life by believing in that child and holding a vision of a bright future for that child. One must believe that there is a future before one is willing to work toward that future.

There are many more lessons I could add to the list and I certainly could elaborate more on those mentioned here. But that would require a book. In the meantime, over the next 35 years, I hope that I'll be able to continue to grow, to learn, to evolve, and to share with appreciation whatever lies ahead.

 

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